Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Elephant No. 23: Balloon Animals

For a change of pace today, I decided to make something vaguely ridiculous. Although I once made a balloon dog, it's been awhile, so making a balloon elephant will be like starting fresh.

The first balloons were likely made from animal bladders and intestines, and date back at least as far as Renaissance Europe. Balloon twisting is almost as old: European jesters and troubadours entertained their audiences by forming shapes with the inflated bladders, intestines and stomachs of recently butchered animals. The Aztecs also created balloon animals, using the intestines of cats to create votive dogs and donkeys. Galileo inflated a pig's bladder in an experiment designed to measure the weight of air. And the indigenous peoples of North America and the Far North inflated the bladders of sea animals to make balls and other toys.

The first rubber balloons were made by scientist Michael Faraday in 1824. Taking two sheets of a sticky non-vulcanized form of rubber, Faraday pressed the edges together, rubbing the interior with flour to keep it from sticking to itself. He then inflated the shapes with hydrogen, making balloons that rose into the air.

The following year, rubber manufacturer Thomas Hancock introduced the first toy balloons. His do-it-yourself balloon-making kit included a bottle of rubber solution and a syringe. By 1847, the first balloons made of vulcanized rubber were being manufactured by J.G. Ingram of London, England. Ingram's balloons were the prototypes for the balloons we use today.

All balloons were round until 1912, when Harry Gill of National Latex Rubber Products in Ohio produced a cigar-shaped balloon. He also produced a dye that did not rub off, and reliably coloured balloons were manufactured for the first time. In 1931, Neil Tillotson—founder of the Tillotson Rubber Company, which still makes balloons today—made the first novelty balloon, featuring a cat's head with pointed ears and a printed face, complete with whiskers.

As balloons became more sophisticated, they were adapted for use by many performers, including exotic dancers, clowns and various vaudeville acts. During the Second World War, massive balloons were developed for use as targets. Following the war, new developments in toy balloons included a two-in-one balloon featuring a mouse-shaped balloon inside a clear one. Today, toy balloons are made by the millions every day, in countries around the world.

There is some controversy about who invented the art of balloon modelling or "twisting". Some suggest that it began around 1920, but that it didn't become popular until the arrival of long, skinny balloons after the Second World War. Others credit individuals such as Herman Bonnert of Pennsylvania, who made balloon shapes at a 1939 magicians' convention; Frank Zacone of Ohio who, by the 1940s, had been doing a balloon act "for some time"; and Henry Maar, who began making balloon shapes in 1938 or 1939, becoming known as The Sultan of Balloons.

By 1986, balloon artists had their first national association and magazine, and today there are balloon organizations and conventions in many countries.

For today's elephant, I found two different balloon elephants online. The first is a very popular but fairly simple elephant, based on the balloon dog. There are many videos featuring this particular elephant. The second is more complicated, and doesn't seem to have any videos. I decided to try both, anticipating that the more complicated one might be beyond me.

First of all, never try to inflate one of these balloons without a pump. You will look like Louis Armstrong blowing his horn, then your head will explode—if you don't pass out first. Apparently there's some sort of technique for blowing these up with your own breath, but it sounded too complicated for me to try. Starter pumps are cheap, and often come with a bunch of balloons. I lucked out with this kit from the dollar store, which contained twelve balloons, a pump and some stick-on eyes—all for $1.50.

For the easier elephant, you need one balloon. When you blow up any of these balloons, you need to leave about 7.5 cm (three inches) of uninflated balloon at the end. This is to give you some squishability to accommodate the many twists.

Tying the balloon end after inflating it was a challenge for me. The air in the balloon is so close to the pump that there's hardly any uninflated balloon to tie off. I'm sure there's a trick to it, but I found it easiest to let out a bit of air to make the whole thing less taut. It was still a challenge, but at least I managed to tie it.

The easy elephant was...well...easy. It's not much different than making a dog, which is the basic balloon animal everyone learns. (Kind of like an origami crane, I'm sure.)

I don't think it looks much like an elephant, except for the outsized ears, but I'll take it.

The next elephant required two balloons, and was more difficult. Three of the balloons exploded while being inflated. Three more exploded while I was trying to make the elephant. Since I burst all the matching balloons in some way or other, this elephant ended up two-tone rather than all blue, or all green, or all anything.

This second elephant involves a couple of trickier twists than the simpler elephant. The first of these was something called a "pinch twist", which I was supposed to use to make a cute little forked end on the elephant's trunk. I tried to make the stupid thing for about fifteen minutes, then gave up. It's a cute touch, but not that cute.

The second slightly complicated twist is the "three-balloon push-through twist". This involves making two lozenges of balloon, then making a third that you push through the middle of these first two, locking it on the other side. Having already had six balloons blow up in my face, I was not looking forward to this one. The balloon made horrible squinching noises as I gently pushed the third section through the opening in the first two; shockingly, however, it actually worked. You can see this twist in the main part of the elephant's head.

The next instruction is to "pop what remains of the balloon". Lemme think...no. I had visions of the whole thing deflating or exploding if I tried such a fool thing, so I just tucked the tail of orange balloon under the elephant's ears.

To create the elephant's body, you attach the nozzle end of the balloon by wrapping it somehow around the elephant's ears. I didn't really know what I was doing. This meant that, when I went to fold and twist the elephant's legs, the nozzle kept popping off, essentially decapitating the elephant. I think I eventually tied the leftover orange end around the nozzle or something to make it stay.

After you form the front legs, there's another of the dread "three-balloon push-through" things. This one was even tighter than the one in the head, and I fully expected to be left with the little red easy elephant and the disembodied head of this more difficult one. Surprisingly, this twist worked as well, and forms the bulk of the elephant's body.

The back legs came next, which was easy enough, although I wasn't supposed to be left with the long tail end. Most balloon animal instructions come with careful instructions like "make both legs around 7.5 cm (three inches) long" or "make body sections about 10 cm (four inches) long". I wasn't sure if my cheapo balloons were standard in any way, so I was a bit more willy-nilly about dimensions than I probably should have been. I was honestly just glad to finish the second elephant without having any more balloons blow up in my face.

I'm fairly happy with the way the two-tone elephant turned out. I don't like the dog-shaped elephant so much, but I would have settled for it if the more difficult elephant had been too annoying. Or if I'd run out of balloons.

I'm definitely not going into business as a balloon-making children's entertainer, although I might be convinced to try a balloon animal or two the next time my little nieces are in town.

Elephant Lore of the Day
The hunting of elephants for their tusks is beginning to have an impact on elephant anatomy. By killing only tusked African elephants, hunters are reducing their number, resulting in more frequent mating between small-tusked elephants, or those with no tusks at all. Because of this, more and more tuskless elephants are being born. In 1930, tuskless elephants accounted for about 1% of the population. Today, the figure is closer to 30% in some regions. Instead of being a rare genetic abormality, tusklessness is becoming a widespread hereditary trait.

If this selection process continues, there is an outside chance that all African elephants could one day be tuskless. The effect of this on the environment, as well as on the elephants themselves, could be significant. Elephants uproot vegetation and dig in the ground for minerals, affecting their ecosystems. They also use their tusks to fight one another for mating rights. In the absence of tusks, elephant behaviour would likely have to change.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home 

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